The number of students around the world studying at foreign higher education institutions has jumped by more than 400% over the past 30 years and is now heading towards four million a year. But a new report says the traditional use of printed university prospectuses as a means of informing these mobile students is no longer effective as students turn to internet search engines and social media such as Facebook.
The report, Online Marketing to a Global student Audience*, was released recently by the British Council\’s Intelligence Unit. It says students planning to study abroad are increasingly conducting their own independent research using a combination of online resources such as search engines and individual university websites.
\”There is no question that the online presentation of information on a branded website with added interactive features that often include multi-language translations, video content and downloadable documents, instantly accessible and at minimal cost, is the first point of call in a student\’s decision-making process,\” the report states.
\”Respondents from most of the 13 profiled countries chose institutions\’ websites as their first source of information. An education exhibition could be considered as an offline presentation of the information a prospective student might find on an institution\’s website, with the added benefit of a face-to-face interaction.
\”Respondents from the majority of represented countries supplement institution-specific web-based research and exhibition attendance with other online resources and search engines.\”
Since February 2007, the British Council has been conducting international questionnaire-based research called Student Insight to collect data from prospective students interested in studying in another country. The survey asks how students conduct their global research into their destination of choice, the resources they have drawn on and how these have changed over time as resources diversify.
Using its global network, the council says it has collected more than 127,000 responses from more than 200 countries.
In its latest report, the researchers focus on students from 13 countries to discover if the use of online resources has superseded traditional face-to-face methods of gathering information. They set out to find if the availability of digital technology – or lack of it – sustains the need for traditional student recruitment techniques or whether the use of less expensive online marketing might be applied to those countries where institutions hope to recruit new students.
\”These two resources, online information searching and exhibition attendance, complement each other in the early decision-making phase, thus allowing prospective students to build their knowledge base about the options that are available to them,\” the report says.
\”The pattern in the use of information by these prospective students then develops to involve other resources as students narrow their searches and seek to benefit from the guidance of wider groups of people who may be accessible to them.\”
It says students from Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Pakistan and Thailand asked friends and family members for information at a relatively early stage in their decision-making while those from China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan said they would use an education agent as a source of information.
Respondents from Hong Kong, Mexico, Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey often preferred to speak with a lecturer or staff member from their institution as a source. Only Nigerian and Korean students said they would attend a presentation by an institution to gain information on overseas study.
Prospective students from Bangladesh, India, Japan and Nepal said one source of information they would turn to would be printed materials. The report says that in the absence of access to online resources \”a reliance on the more traditional – and some would claim outdated – print materials becomes more understandable\”.
The report warns that universities responding to the global online trend with a \”one size fits all\” approach to digital marketing will miss out. At the same time, many institutions are investing more in promoting themselves online in an effort to reach students \”who nowadays exist in an increasingly complex and impenetrable digital landscape\”.
Differences between the 13 countries studied in the report include students\’ preferred language when surfing the web and which social media networking sites they frequent. In China, Korea and Japan, English is not the dominant language online and although Facebook is globally popular, students in China are more likely to use the Chinese free instant messaging service Tencent QQ.
The report says that while increasing numbers of prospective international students are using the internet to help them generate a shortlist of study options, when it comes to making a final decision there is still no substitute for face-to-face interaction with trusted advisors or university representatives.
\”The decision-making process behind a commitment to undertake overseas study is one that dictates actions that will affect the rest of an individual\’s life. Relying fully purely on digital media to make a life changing decision – without having experienced any tangible or concretely affirming evidence – would certainly amount to a huge leap of faith for a young person.\”
Author of the report, British Council research manager Elizabeth Shepherd, said it was clear universities were already putting more resources into digital marketing in response to the massive growth in the use of the internet and social media.
\”What this research shows is that universities need to develop an in-depth knowledge of internet and social media usage in each of the countries they are targeting and tailor their digital marketing accordingly. It might mean, for instance, that they must be prepared to provide information online in the native language of the students they are aiming to engage with,\” Shepherd said.